The TOAST Book Club is published on the last Friday of every month. The reviews are written by Betsy Tobin, author of five novels and joint founder of [email protected] – an independent bookshop just up the road from our head office, situated in leafy Highbury. Though the book club exists in a purely digital sphere we hope that you will add your own opinions and thoughts below.*
'Gil Coleman looked down from the window and saw his dead wife standing on the pavement below.' Claire Fuller’s provocative new novel opens with an enigma. Gil's wife, Ingrid has been missing, presumed drowned, for twelve years. Has he really just seen her, alive and well, on the seafront? Or has his aging imagination somehow conjured her out of the sea mist?
The possibility of a sighting is enough to bring their grown children, Nan and Flora, scurrying back to the family home. In the days that follow, they attempt to unravel the mystery of their mother’s disappearance. Is she really dead? Or did she simply choose to desert them all those years ago?
They spar, reveal long-held resentments, and skirt around the truth, unaware that the answer lies buried within the books that surround them. For it is in a series of Ingrid’s letters to Gil, written over a period of years and carefully placed in not-so-random volumes of his vast library, that we eventually discover the truth. The letters slowly unravel the story of Gil and Ingrid’s life together, from the time of their earliest meeting when Ingrid pitches up as a student in his class, to the day sixteen years later when she leaves, swimming defiantly into the surf.
This is part ghost story, part epistolary novel, part psychological mystery. Fuller’s genius lies in bringing Ingrid so vividly to life through her letters that her past becomes almost more real to us than the present. When we first meet her in 1976 she is an idealistic young student, determined with her best friend Louise, to avoid the futility of their mother’s lives. Ingrid and Louise vow to travel the world and lead a life devoid of things: ‘children, husbands, houses, men – they all just tie you down,’ declares Louise staunchly.
But for Ingrid at least, things do not go to plan. Enter Gil Coleman: clever, talented university lecturer, still darkly handsome at 39, with a voice ‘made for bedtime radio’ -- and soon to be famous. On the first day of class he urges his students to reveal one of their darkest, most private truths, for these he assures them, are ‘the lifeblood of a writer.’ Gil himself leads off the exercise with a story that Ingrid instantly recognizes as a lie, thus setting the stage for a lifetime of betrayal. But against Louise’s advice, she rushes into an affair, which eventually saddles her with the life she had so desperately wanted to avoid.
Ingrid’s tale of slow suffocation as a mother and wife to a philandering husband is interlaced with that of her daughter’s attempts to define themselves in her absence, haunted as they are by her abandonment. And at the centre of this story sits the much-lauded but still tragic figure of Gil, whose arrogance and selfishness have wrought havoc on them all.
Claire Fuller burst upon the literary scene in 2015 with her widely praised debut, Our Endless Numbered Days, the story of a delusional father who kidnaps his own daughter to avoid Armageddon, which scooped the Desmond Elliott Prize. Swimming Lessons is an impressive follow-up: wise, gripping and even more assured.
Words by Betsy Tobin
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